Minister of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries Barbara Creecy gazetted air pollution standards for sulphur dioxide (SO2) twice as weak as the previous standards on the first day of South Africa's national lockdown.
"Instead of Eskom, Sasol, and other facilities with coal boilers having to meet the original SO2 standard of 500 mg/Nm3, they will now only be required to comply with minimum emission standards (MES) doubly as weak (1000 mg/Nm3)," said the Life After Coal campaign, a joint campaign by Earthlife Africa Johannesburg, groundWork and the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER).
The new limit will apply either by today or by the delayed dates that these companies have already been given by the national air quality officer.
Research presented by the campaign to Creecy and her department showed that 3 300 premature deaths would be caused by doubling the SO2 standard just for Eskom’s coal-fired power stations from the increased risk of lower respiratory infections, stroke, and death from diabetes.
"The weakening of the standard makes South Africa’s 2020 SO2 standard, which exists to protect people’s health and human rights, about 28 times more lax than in China, and 10 times weaker than India’s," the campaign stated.
For more than six years, it has fought efforts by industry, particularly Eskom and Sasol as SA's two biggest polluters, to delay and evade meeting more stringent air pollution standards.
"When the MES were first promulgated in 2010, despite their active participation in the multi-year process to set them, both Eskom and Sasol sought to be completely exempt from the MES," the campaign stated.
"Subsequent to that failed attempt, and instead of making the investments required to meet the standards, both companies have brought multiple applications to the national air quality officer in the department – the majority of which have succeeded – to delay compliance with the MES."
In 2014, Sasol brought a court application seeking to set aside the majority of the MES in their entirety, which it withdrew when it was allowed by the national air quality officer to postpone MES compliance.
In October 2018, then acting Environment Minister Derek Hanekom published the doubled SO2 MES limit without inviting public comment, as the Air Quality Act requires. In April 2019, after numerous calls for the standards to be withdrawn, groundWork was forced to go to court to set aside the unlawful notice.
In May last year, then-Minister Nomvula Mokonyane withdrew the notice, giving the public 30 days to comment on the same proposal to weaken the standard.
In July, the Life After Coal Campaign, along with four community-based organisations, submitted evidence-based objections to the proposed doubling of the standard including that an estimated 3 300 premature deaths would be caused from Eskom's pollution by doubling the SO2 standard.
This was as a result of increased risk of lower respiratory infections, stroke, and death from diabetes – with around 1 000 of these premature deaths estimated in Gauteng. The studies showed profound health impacts on children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those already suffering from asthma, heart, and lung disease.
"Almost nine months since comment was invited on the proposal, and on the eve of the standards coming into effect, Minister Creecy has now made a decision to publish substantially more lenient MES for implementation," stated the campaign.
"Industry, including Eskom and Sasol, has had an entire decade to prepare for legal compliance with standards already weaker than several other developing countries," said Robyn Hugo, attorney and head of the CER's pollution and climate change programme, in a statement.
“In these circumstances and despite the fact that the new standard is three-and-a-half times stricter than the current SO2 MES, it is hard to defend the Minister’s argument that weakening the standard promotes progressive realisation of the Constitutional right to an environment not harmful to human health or wellbeing."
The government faces a court challenge from groundWork and Vukani Environmental Movement over their "collective failure" to improve the toxic air quality on the Mpumalanga Highveld.
The groups state that if Creecy fails to provide satisfactory reasons for her decision to weaken the MES under the Promotion of Administrative Justice Act, 2000, more legal action will follow as the partners in the campaign "will have no option but to approach the High Court to set aside the Minister’s decision".
"There is nothing in the world that can justify the government's decision to approve a further 3 300 deaths every year," said Bukelwa Nzimande, climate and energy campaigner at Greenpeace Africa, in a statement. "It defies all logic and humanity that, in a global crisis, Minister Creecy has made a decision that indicates the opposite: that South African lives are less valuable than profits.
"There is evidence that air pollution exposure can lead to increased incidence and severity of some respiratory infections. Doubling the SO2 limits in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic is nothing short of irresponsible, and a flagrant disregard for the health and humanity of the people of SA. Big polluters like Eskom and Sasol have been trying to dodge their accountability to South Africans for years."
The department says the amendment aims to reduce emissions from 3500mg/Nm3 to 1000mg/Nm3 instead of the 500mg/Nm3 which was due to come into effect today. The standard for plants built after 2010 remains at 500mg/Nm3
When implemented, the revised limit of 1000mg/Nm3 will achieve a 58% reduction in total emissions.
"It will significantly improve compliance compared to the current state of air, in which sulphur dioxide emissions are measured at 3500/Nm and above...
"At present, neither Eskom nor Sasol, the major emitters of sulphur dioxide, meet current MES for plants constructed prior to 2010.
"A technical and cost benefit analysis undertaken by independent scientists including departmental specialists, has shown that to comply with the standard of 500mg/Nm3 Eskom and Sasol respectively would have to invest significantly based on the sheer size of the installed boilers and complex integrated systems linked to production of synfuels.
"It is clear that given the current financial situation of both Eskom and Sasol, the achievement of this in the near future is unlikely. It is however of critical importance that both companies commit to a path that set their facilities on the road to a vastly reduced level of emissions. In a letter received by the Department last month, Sasol committed to achieving the revised standards by 2025. Eskom’s submission in this regard is still awaited."
The department received 13 submissions representing "divergent viewpoints" in the public consultation process.
"Many industries argued that amendments to MES should be pegged at the 3500 level for all plants built prior to 2010 regardless of whether or not they plan to decommission by 2030. They cited costs of retrofitting plants as the major stumbling block to compliance. They argued further that international precedent enables a principle of grand fathering or allowing the plants to operate until end of life in accordance with original licensing regime, in cases where changes in legislation or new standards were introduced."
Environmental organisations had argued strongly against the amendment, citing concerns over current air quality and its impacts on human health.
"In weighing up these submissions, the department has chosen a middle path which will allow for the progressive achievement of environmental rights and improved air quality for human health, without undermining the viability of key industries ... We nevertheless find it regrettable that the challenges facing our country in relation to energy security and the state of the economy, have resulted in a slower achievement of the desired state of air," it said.
Air pollution from coal mining and power already kills thousands of people every year. "Instead of enforcing compliance with our already-weak standards, government has effectively legalised these deaths”, said Bobby Peek, director of groundWork.
Nicole Rodel, spokesperson for the African Climate Reality Project, says the country's "climate criminals have been handed another victory on a silver platter, courtesy of the department.
SO2 is a notorious pollutant that causes significant harm to human health and the environment. It can affect the respiratory system and the functions of the lungs, and causes irritation of the eyes. Inflammation of the respiratory tract causes coughing, mucus secretion, aggravation of asthma and chronic bronchitis, and makes people more prone to infections of the respiratory tract.
Studies have linked SO2 to low birth weight in infants and an increased risk for gestational diabetes mellitus, stillbirths, and pre-term births.
Hospital admissions for cardiac disease and mortality increase on days with higher SO2 levels. When SO2 combines with water, it forms sulphuric acid, which is the main component of acid rain.